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Personal Touch And Leagues Cement Location Loyalty For Iowa Operator

Posted On: 5/18/2004

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DES MOINES, IA - Ever heard of an operator who runs electronic darts almost exclusively? Well now you have, and he's quite successful at it, too. Alan Russell of Hawkeye Dart, headquartered here, also runs a few eight-liners. In fact, he has served as president of the Iowa Operators of Music & Amusements Association for the past three years as the organization successfully lobbied to legalize eight-liners.

But darts are really Russell's forte. His life is one long round of dart operation, league promotion, player and dart-location visits. Russell also serves as the commissioner of darts for the Iowa Games, a state-sponsored, Olympic-style annual sports festival. In another measure of just how darts-centric an operator can be, Russell even married a darts player. It is quite clear that this "goodwill ambassador of darts" is very happy with a life and business strongly focused on the bull's-eye.

Russell's entry into the amusements trade came in 1994, following two decades in a family tractor business where he had become marketing vice-president. It was then that he decided to purchase an existing amusement route from another operator. He immediately set upon upgrading equipment in each of his 50 locations and organizing strong, popular dart leagues. In 10 years' time there has been a significant turnover of locations as Russell dropped weak ones and recruited more profitable spots.

Organized dart leagues played a crucial role in creating the strong customer loyalty that locations developed for Hawkeye Dart. And leagues continue to perform that vital same function. "It's hard to get into bars and have just darts," Russell generalized. "They tend to want one operator for everything, not one operator for darts and a second for everything else." But after acquiring the route, Russell overcame this problem by quickly building his dart leagues into what he terms a "huge business." By 1998 he was running 150 dart teams with three 35-week league seasons annually.

interest remains strong

Today the number of dart players in Hawkeye Dart's local leagues is smaller, but enthusiasm remains strong as ever among league members. Meanwhile, state dart tournaments are setting records for attendance. As a result, Hawkeye Dart enjoys "extremely solid" relationships with its locations.

Russell uses Arachnid equipment exclusively. The Rockford, IL-based company's "6300" model was already in use on the route when Russell purchased it; he subsequently converted about 40 of the first 90 units to "Galaxy" models. He purchased 56 dedicated "Galaxy" machines as well. "My equipment has five service calls a year and my players love them," said Russell, explaining why he has not upgraded to "Widow" or "Galaxy II." He's also happy to be debt-free, he said.

"Galaxy" has a networking option but Russell has chosen not to use it, preferring face-to-face interaction with his customers. Such contact is another significant factor in his ability to create and maintain location loyalty, he pointed out. "I have maintained from day one that I want personal contact with players and bar owners. If I go to modems, I'll never see owners except to collect money. I have all electronic statistics, using a data collection card as I have for nine years, but it's not done over phone lines. I walk into the bar and talk to owners, bar staff, league players or their friends. I also do light maintenance if needed and it's ready to go. I don't visit each location every day, but it's better than going every few weeks just to collect money. I spend lots of time and money on gas and PR because it's important."

There is no replacement for that personal connection, Russell insisted. "Cost is not the issue, even though modems and phone lines would cost up to $10,000," he said. "But the relationship is much more important. When I walk into a bar, everybody knows who I am."

The Hawkeye Dart route is comprised almost exclusively of taverns, though it does has a VFW hall, Elks Club, Eagles Lodge and hotel lounge among its locations. His largest location is the city's Sports Palace, a 15,000-sq.ft. emporium that seats more than 700 people. Russell and another operator have outfitted the site with seven pool tables, five dartboards, four countertops, two gaming-style machines, four "Golden Tee" videos and three table soccer games.

The small locations on Hawkeye Dart's route are typically about 2,000 sq.ft. and include a dart game, jukebox and two countertops. But Russell said most of his bars are in the 5,000 to 6,000 sq.ft. range.

In recent years, Russell has struggled with the fading popularity of darts as a sport. Since 2001, Russell's dart business has dipped 35% to 40% with revenue following. Operators of other types of amusement equipment have not reported a comparable fall-off for, say, pool or countertops, so the problem appears to be simply a cyclical waxing and waning of the sport's appeal, in Russell's view. "Electronic darts are still fun even though the game is now 20 years old," he explained. "Bowling went through the same thing after the 20-year mark and other casual sports are still going through cyclical changes, as pool has. I still have excited players, but they aren't in great numbers like they used to be."

Other than that handful of eight , liners, Russell does not foresee making attempts to expand his operation's repertoire beyond darts. "In Des Moines, there aren't many location contracts but there is a whole bunch of loyalty," he stated. "For me to say I want to expand from darts to other amusements, the answer from location owners would be 'no' more than 95% of the time. They don't have a problem with two operators [now], but they would have a problem with switching operators."

in touch with the people

When asked what he most enjoys about running darts, Russell returns to a favorite theme: the contacts with his customers. "I love Des Moines and its people," he said. "They are wonderful people. You can't walk down the street without strangers saying 'hello.' I have lived on the East Coast and it's just not the same. I absolutely enjoy the people here above any place in the country."

For proof that he means what he says, just ask his wife Janice , a dart player whom he met on the job. She's now involved in day care while completing her college studies in childhood development, but still enjoys a game of "501" now and then.

call to serve

Russell joined the Iowa Operators of Music & Amusements in 1996, working his way up to president in 2001. He is the first IOMA president who was reelected to two successive terms, having completed his third term on April 14 of this year. He now serves as chairman of the legislative affairs committee.

"I didn't necessarily want to be president; I just wanted to know everything about the vending business," he said of his reasons for joining IOMA. "Obviously I concentrated heavily on darts, but apparently everyone in the group thought I was very knowledgeable. I'm not, but I am an organizer, hardworking, fair-minded, and they like me as a leader. I get my hands dirty, make sure everything is under control, and allow other people to get their hands dirty too , because someday they will be sitting where I am. And there is no better teacher than experience.

"There is no prestige and no money in association work," he continued, "just headaches if you're doing your job. I create projects, call people and find out what's going on. That is how organizations are built. I enjoy talking to people, learning from people. That's what I am about."

Despite his obvious qualifications to serve on the AMOA national board of directors, Russell says he does not expect to do so. The reason: running his own business requires him to keep close to home. "I've sent lots of people to Arachnid's BullShooter tournament and to the AMOA National Dart Association's national championships, but I can't go myself," he said. "I have to be on hand to step in if anything goes wrong. I can take short vacations and attend brief association meetings, but I really can't afford to be out of the state for frequent or lengthy AMOA meetings."

An observer might be forgiven for thinking that perhaps, too, this Midwest operator simply can't bear to be away too long from his home state and its people. For Alan Russell, darts continue to be the vehicle for his "ambassadorship of good will" in a community he loves.